Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Arsalan - Muslim Bengali Food

A dear friend [such an Indian phrase] who lived at Pali Hill and now lives in Delhi, was in town. She wanted to visit her old haunt, the very popular Toto’s Garage Pub before going on to dinner. We had planned to go to the brand new restaurant Arsalan at Khar for dinner. It promised to be a good evening.

On to Toto’s where we proceeded to have our favourite intoxicants. The friend reminisced about Chicken in Wire Mesh, a Toto’s classic, so we summoned the ever enthusiastic Raj and asked him to get us a Chicken in Wire Mesh. Soon it appeared, it is essentially straw potato deep fried in the shape of a bowl and filled with a Chinese style chicken. Quite delicious and quickly wolfed down.

Chicken in Wire Mesh
On to Arsalan which means lion in Urdu. Arsalan is a Muslim Bengali restaurant from Kolkata. They have some 4 outlets in Kolkata and have opened their first outlet in a spanking new building on S V Road, Khar at the crossroad leading to Khar Station. Muslim Bengali food is quite different from both Bengali food as well as Muslim food. It does not have the classic Doi Maach, Poshtos, Macher Jhol and Chingri Malai dishes that Hindu Bengali food has. By the same token dishes like the Mutton Chaamp, Rezala are peculiar to Muslim Bengali food. The Mutton Rolls that we like are also Muslim Bengali.

Arsalan has a modern decor with a few tables indoors in an air-conditioned section while several more are located in an open air area, obviously encroached up and therefore illegal. Since it is `winter’ in Mumbai the outside area was pleasant to sit in so we took a table there. We did not foresee the noise from the heavy traffic outside, but it was pleasant all the same. The restaurant was full of Bengalis speaking in Bengali, insulated from the `cold’ by their jackets, hoods, sweatshirts, shawls and what have you. Come on guys, it’s not that cold in Mumbai!

Arsalan - the outside
We started with Double Mutton Single Egg rolls. The `roti’ in the roll was a `Laccha Paratha’ – so we were informed by our waiter. Not normal but nice. There was Tamarind chutney inside. Good rolls but, unfortunately, they arrived lukewarm. It seems the Parathas were made earlier, the meat cooked earlier and simply assembled on order. Pity, but good nonetheless.

The Double Mutton Single Egg Roll
Our waiter suggested that we have Special Arsalan Chicken Kebab. This was skewered boneless chicken cooked in a Tandoor and covered with a thick coating of melted Cheese. Interesting, tasty and slightly different.

Arsalan Special Chicken Kebab
For our main course we ordered a Mutton Dum Biryani Special [Special has one more piece of Mutton, one more piece of Potato and a boiled egg as opposed to ordinary] a Mutton Chaamp and Mutton Rezala. The waiter insisted we get a Tandoori roti. The star of the evening should have been the Biryani. A Kolkata biryani is unique. It has very bland rice but it’s very aromatic, redolent with Kewda [Screwpine] and Elaichi, and the meat is rather bland too. Unfortunately once again the dish was lukewarm. It was tasty, the rice well cooked and separate the meat luscious the potato soft but all of it was cold. The Rezala was, to my mind, a mess. It was had a very thin milky gravy which really had no parentage. Disappointing. The Mutton Chaamp was once again ice cold but it suffered from a bigger problem, it had a lot of shattered bone in it. This was unpleasant as well as dangerous as it can really bugger up your teeth. The texture [barring the bones] was peculiar, it was greasy and grainy. Not nice.

Special Mutton Dum Biryani

Mutton Chaamp

Mutton Rezala
In balance, the Rolls, Kebab and Biryani were good. It would have been really good if they were served hot.  The place is new and prices are low. In fact the prices are very low. For the three of us with all the food I have written about the bill came to just Rs. 1070 which is just Rs 350 per head. The quality of the meat used is really very good.  Go for a meal. Hope you get hot food, if you do, you are really in luck.
Arsalan the lion did not roar, it meowed and whimpered!!! 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Vegetarians and Jains

"Jab tak samosa me aloo hoga,
Tab tak Bihar mein Laloo hoga."

You must have read and or heard this.

That is all very well in Patna but, God help you if you are a Jain.

I have another problem. There is this pig headed belief that vegetarians and especially Jains have, of serving North Indian food. Let’s set out some principles:

·         You are free to practice Jainism and therefore not eat ginger, garlic, onion, potato and any mammal or bird or fish [cow, buffalo, pig, goat, chicken et al].

·         You are free to be a vegetarian and simply not eat any mammal or bird or fish [cow, buffalo, pig, goat, chicken et al].

·         A lot [not all] of North Indian food especially Mughlai is made with the holy trinity of browned onions and ginger and garlic paste. It’s the base of any curry. Similarly, a lot of the food has meat.

Why, for God’s sake, does a Jain serve you a Biryani, or Black Daal? Can someone please tell me? A biryani with no meat, no ginger, or garlic or onion or potato? A black daal, not simmered for hours on a dying tandoor, without onion and ginger garlic paste, and whisked together in a pressure cooker? Why, why, why? Does normal vegetarian food or Jain food not have preparations indigenous to that cuisine? Why for f**ks sake do you have to murder a perfectly decent non vegetarian dish and then heap insult on injury and serve it at a party?

The other day a Jain told me she made Roesti for dinner. I choked on my pork belly. Roesti, I squawked? Are you not a Jain? How on earth are you making Roesti which is a classic Swiss dish of a potato pancake enriched with bacon? She replied as if I was mad, and said that she makes Roesti with raw Banana, to which she adds a `tadka’ of Jeera [Cumin] and Green chilly. I give up. How can you call something Roesti when it does not have a single ingredient that a Roesti contains, barring salt?

A few weeks ago, while channel surfing I caught the end of the hot new reality program “Masterchef India” (I am addicted to the Australia and USA versions, but that is a story for another blog).  The episode culminated with a very short man winning Rs 1 lakh by making a sushi (or `susi’ as it was called on the show) of Rawa Upma wrapped around Kolaphuri fish!!! Why call it `susi’? Find another name for God’s sake!!

Yes I know that many of you will say that why can the vegetarians not have a biryani or Roesti? Listen guys, vegetarians have never eaten a meat biryani and Jains have never eaten a Roesti. So why muck about, make something bizarre and pretend that it’s the real thing?

But we soldier on. Vegetarian parties are getting very stressful. HRH the Queen of Kutch complains that I am getting unbearable anti social and don’t want to meet anyone. Is not social intercourse something convivial, with libations and decent food? I can’t handle another Limboo Sharbat and Pani Puri.

Sorry folks, I am checking out.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Maharashtrian food at MCA Recreation Centre

HRH the Queen of Kutch is, naturally, a member of Mumbai’s most prestigious club - the MCA Recreation Centre - at Bandra Kurla Complex. This is a spanking new club, and, its development is staggering. I, a commoner, am a member of the ironically named Royal Bombay Yacht Club, one of Mumbai’s oldest. If a school teacher wishes to explain to her students by bringing to life the meaning of words such as decrepit, run down, worn out, dusty and so on she should take them to the Royal Bombay Yacht Club. But, I meander.

The MCA Recreation Centre sent out a flyer, by email naturally, announcing the start of a Maharashtrian buffet for lunch and dinner. We thought why not give it a shot and went there for lunch. This was a moment of serendipity.

The dining room was rather oddly done up, empty, and a buffet was laid out. Before taking the plunge we thought, like all good Indians, that we should walk up to the buffet table, rudely open every chafing dish, look inside, pass comments and shut it before moving to do exactly the same to the next chafing dish. Once we had peered inside every dish we had a small discussion on whether the `spread’ was good enough, and deeming it so, walked to sit at a table.

Let me cut to the chase; it was excellent, top class and superb value.

On offer was:

Non vegetarian
Bangda Tikale
Fried Halwa
Rawas Curry [Coconut based gravy]
Prawns Sukke
Chicken Masala [Coconut based gravy]
Chowli Bhaji – String beans
Suran Channa Masala [Coconut based gravy with Elephant Yam]
Channa Masala [Coconut based gravy with brown Channa]
Palak Paneer [I don't know how this was Maharashtrian]

You got Vade, Chapatti and Rice Bhakri served at your table to accompany the food.

You also had a Soup, a selection of salads and a multitude of deserts generally made with gelatin/china grass, kheer, rabdi et al. One unusual desert on offer was `Kharvas’. This is the first milk of a cow that has just given birth. The milk is enriched with Nutmeg and other spices and served as a sort of cheesecake. Except for the Kharvas all the other desserts on offer are a complete waste of time, stomach space and calories. Don’t bother.

This was priced at Rs 350/- (yes, your read right, Rupees there hundred and fifty) plus taxes which came to a grand total of Rs. 405/-.

There were 4 Coconut based gravy dishes, I am happy to tell you all tasted different and the coconut was very finely ground which takes some effort. The Prawns were absolutely delicious in a thick onion, tomato mixture/sauce with bits of Kokum. The Halwa was coated in a crisp batter and fried.

The food compared very well with what we eat at Saayba, may be not as robust but very good all the same. We were absolutely thrilled to bits. Getting Maharashtrian food, so unabashedly non vegetarian, is such a pleasure. I am not saying this because of any jingoistic or chauvinistic feelings, but simply that Maharashtrian food is just so rare in Mumbai. The wait staff is very friendly and were so happy that we liked the food that they beamed beatifically all thru.

You really should go for a meal. I suggest you first go to the bar, have a few beers or whatever else you fancy and then saunter across to the restaurant. It’s really well worth it.

Al last something new that is not only up to the mark but surpasses it.

Sorry no photos. I did not carry the camera.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A good dinner?

Ok, here is a question that has been tormenting me.

Why do people serve what is undeniably a snack as dinner, i.e. as the main course at a meal?

How many times have you gone to something known as a “Bhel Puri Party” or, worse, a “Pani Puri Party”? Why do people think that Bhel Puri or Pani Puri are god damned meals? Who has created this horrible monster? And why am I to be subjected to this abomination?

Bhel Puri, Pani Puri, Ragda Pettice [phonetically spelt] Dahi Batata Puri, Pao Bhaji are all snacks. They are street food. They are not meals. Even eaten together they are not meals. Is that so difficult to understand? How can you possibly call friends to your home and serve them a snack and claim you are a good host. Sorry, it does not cut any ice with me.

The newer fashion, if you are rich, is to call Muthuswamy and have him prepare Dosas with a multitude of fillings, Uttapams again with a multitude of toppings and a variety of Idlis. And then they have the gall to call that dinner! Hey rich vegetarians, do you know that snacks don’t make a meal? Don’t you know that even the God fearing Tamilians call such food `Tiffin’? Don’t you realise that you are getting one universal batter – dosa, idly and uttapam is made with the same stuff? Don’t you realise that adding cheese on top does not make something classy or God forbid, dinner?

Frankly, I cannot stand such invitations. On the occasions that I absolutely have to attend – which are very few, ordinarily I just refuse to go - I do not eat, I sulk and come back home and order some kebabs, a roti and some biryani, and wash it down with a cold beer. 

None of all this tomfoolery for me.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A good cocktail

I am a beer drinker. I do like a decent wine – no, and I mean no, Indian wine is decent. There are a few decent imported wines available in India but they do cost an arm and a leg. No wine, and, I repeat, no wine costing less than Rs 1000 in India is drinkable in quantities greater than 1 glass. I like my beer. I have no problem drinking a cold Kingfisher, nothing fancier. It’s perfectly decent, quality does not change and the taste is inoffensive. Drinks like Bacardi Breezers are absolutely horrid.

A good cocktail however, is quite a pleasure. The problem we have in India is that cocktails in bars are either horribly sweet or are so expensive and/or dilute that you feel cheated. I have not quite figured out why the same Vodka going into a cocktail costs so much more. Two of my favourite cocktails are a Negroni and a Daiquiri.

Sometimes things can get quite dicey. A classic Daiquiri is something that grew out of necessity. The story goes that American engineers working in a mine in Cuba drank gin after work at a bar called Venus in a place called Santiago close to Havana. One day when they ran out of gin which they used to make Planters Punch, the engineer used Cuban rum which was available in abundance with the equally abundantly available sugar and limes and the Daiquiri was born.

Getting a decent Daiquiri is very difficult. Several bars serve Daiquiris with, God help us, Strawberry, Raspberry, Mango and what have you. You also get them `frozen’. Very scary and completely undrinkable unless you are brain damaged or such an alcohol hater that you need to completely disguise the taste. I recently came across a recipe and found that the resultant Daiquiri is simply fantastic. A great balance of flavours – sweet, sour and alcohol, and a drink that is so simple to make at home. Everyone has sugar, lime and ice at home. The only exotic is that you need Gold rum. By Gold I mean the rum should be the same colour as a whiskey i.e. gold, not the dark Old Monk colour and not the white rum colour. You get Bacardi Gold for about Rs 950/- in Mumbai. This is the correct rum. Old Monk has a rum they call Gold but this does not denote the colour [which is dark] but denotes some kind of superior quality.

Get a bottle of Bacardi Gold and make yourself this drink. The economics make so much sense. Rs 950/- for the raw material. This would give you at least 15 drinks. If you have a Daiquiri at a bar you will spend Rs 950 in just 2 drinks. Drink at home, makes most sense, raw material is the same and the skill required is minimal Oh yes, ideally you should have a weighing machine to get things spot on.

For one drink

50 ml/grams Bacardi Gold [about 1 ½ small pegs]
8 ml/grams lime juice [about 1 ½ teaspoons]
8 grams powdered sugar [about 1 ½ teaspoons]
Ice cubes.

Put everything into a cocktail shaker, give it a good shake and pour into a glass. Drink!!! If you don’t have a cocktail shaker use a big clean bottle with a top obviously. If you don’t have a bottle then mix everything in a cooking vessel. If you don’t have that either you are a hopeless looser. You don’t deserve to drink this.


A Negroni is even simpler. The two problems are (i) you need 2 exotic alcohols [both widely available in India] and (ii) you or members of your family may think you are mad to be drinking something that people say tastes like cough mixture, or worse. Believe me, they are fools. A Negroni is an absolutely top class drink.

For one drink

50 ml/grams Campari
50 ml/grams Martini Rosso
50 ml/grams Gin
A squeeze of lime  
Ice cubes

Basically the three alcohols are in equal quantities. Once again put everything into a cocktail shaker, give it a good shake and pour into a glass. Drink!!! If you don’t have a cocktail shaker use a big clean bottle with a top obviously. If you don’t have a bottle then mix everything in a cooking vessel. If you don’t have that either you are a hopeless looser. Please slit your wrists immediately.

Negroni with Lime Zest

The photos are mine. I made the drinks just to show you.


Monday, December 5, 2011

Eat at home.

After a few blogs of Eating Out, I thought it would be nice to show off some of the adventures we have had in the kitchen over the past weeks.

We had bought the new cookbook by Thomas Keller called Ad Hoc At Home. Very good, like all his other books, visually attractive, great recipes and most importantly, very accurate recipes that work. One recipe that leapt out was Sautéed Chicken Breasts with Tarragon. Very simple to make, very tasty and a great introduction to simple `Conti’ food. No fancy equipment required and you can drink the wine left over after making the sauce. It’s a chicken breast flattened, seasoned, sautéed and served with a pan sauce. It would appeal to Indian tastes as the chicken is dusted with a dash of Madras Curry Powder. Unfortunately, getting Tarragon proved very difficult. Both Crawford Market and Pali Market complained that no one buys Tarragon so they do not stock it. Had to make do with some Sage. Made a sautéed potato to go with the chicken. Delicious.

A Quiche is something we both love. A slice of Quiche, slightly warm, studded with crisp salty Lardons, accompanied by a crisp green salad dressed with a tart dressing and a glass of cold white wine is a brilliant lunch. All the food groups are present. The problem with Quiches is that they are more often than not made in a tart tin. This means that the depth of the Quiche is just about 3 cms which results in skimpy filling. The filling is the magic of a Quiche. The Gruyere Cheese, lashings of Kirsch, Nutmeg and Pancetta/Lardons or Bacon all mixed into custard is something magical. Traditionally Quiches are made not in a Tart tin but in 5 cms deep flan ring giving you a much deeper Quiche. This is what we used. The results were dramatically better. We did have a salad and some wine and dinner was done.

The Pancetta left over from the Quiche had to be put to some use. So we thought why not make a classic Salad Lyonnaise. This is a sort of main course salad traditionally made with Dandelion leaves which are complete impossibility in Bombay, a substitute is Frisee, which is not an impossibility but merely a difficulty to get in Mumbai. Unfortunately, the day we wanted them, they were unobtainable, so we used some Romaine. We got a box of Keggs Eggs which we poached. I must say that Keggs eggs are really really good. Yes, they do cost Rs 55 for 6 but the quality and result is excellent. Look for them in Natures Basket, paying Rs 55 for 6 eggs as an experiment is not going to kill you, you will have money left over after that! They are worth every paisa. Don’t use them for omelette's but do scramble, boil, fry or poach them or even use them in a Quiche or Mousse or to make Pasta. The Pancetta was blanched and then fried. The bread toasted with a bit of garlic rubbed on and the salad dressed with simple Vinaigrette. The poached eggs on top oozed delightfully.

The Bon Appetite magazine had a feature on sweets for Christmas. One that caught our eye was a beautiful looking, red hot, Peppermint Meringue. With Bombay in the so called winter, well with less humidity, it would be a good time to make meringues; they would not get sticky and moist. We set about making them. It took a bit of practice for HRH the Queen of Kutch to get the piping done accurately. The results are delicious.

We had a lot of Toulouse Sausage in the deep freeze. I had recently bought a whole lot of unsalted butter, made by Amul for export, at a very good price. So I suggested that we make a Brioche dough. We could make the classic Saucisson Lyonnais en Brioche, which is a sausage wrapped in a Brioche for dinner. The classic dish uses a Lyonnais Sausage which is rather different from a Toulouse made in England, but the dish works just as well. Good results and a decent dinner. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Mumbai's finest

Many of you may recall the claims of our Police Commissioners, made repeatedly, that the Mumbai Police is the best in the world. Sometimes in a moment of weakness, or perhaps, when being less delusional, the Commissioners claim it is the second best in the world, after the Scotland Yard. The Police department’s motto is quite a mouthful - "Sadrakṣaṇāya Khalanigrahaṇāya" (Sanskrit: "To protect the good and to punish the evil").  

A couple of days ago I was evil, very evil. I had a spot of work at Worli in a building on Dr. Annie Besant Road. So I parked my car on the wide road which is still known as “Prabhadevi New Road”. This is a road leading from Worli Sea Face to Dr. Annie Besant Road, opposite the old Passport Office. I nipped in to get my work done and came out only to find that my car had been clamped by Mumbai’s finest. I had parked in a no parking zone, a most heinous crime. Now starts the fun.

The clamp had some sort of prong, and on that prong was a note asking me to either go to the Police Chowki - which I am happy to tell you has been defined in the Oxford Dictionary as a police station or jail – or make a telephone call to the number noted on the paper. I made the call and the receiver of the call told me he would be there in 10 minutes to remove my clamp. I was quite pleased at hearing this, a 10 minute wait was reasonable, I had committed a crime, the trees under which I had parked provided enough shade and a delightful sea breeze was blowing.

10 minutes passed fast enough and soon a tow truck turned up with a policeman sitting alongside the driver. The policeman looked; I kid you not, like a cross between Rajnikanth in Sivaji and George Clooney, complete with a pair of Ray Bans. Now anyone who expects a policeman to be honest should be carried away by the men in white coats.

I produced my license and was offered a choice by the cop, pay a fine at once or deposit my license with him and go to the Chowki later and pay the fine to get it released. I chose the first option, coughed up Rs 200 – less than USD 4 at today’s exchange rate – and got the clamp released. I, being evil, was punished. I got a receipt for the payment of Rs 200/-. Do have a look at the receipt. It’s a receipt for payment of a towing charge.

Here is my point:

1. I had parked in a no parking zone. Thus, I should have been fined for that. Apparently I have not been fined.

2. My car was never towed. It was clamped. So why did I pay a towing charge?

3. Where has my Rs 200 gone, probably for a new pair of Ray Bans?

4. Is it a bribe, no I have a receipt. Is it an offence, no I don’t have a receipt.

I am sure with the Lok Pal Act in place all this will magically stop. But why should it stop, what is the offence.

I am so confused.

I hope you now know why Mumbai Police are the finest. Amazing motto too. Remember the word "Jugaad"?

Saturday, November 26, 2011


Pink has many meanings.

It is a colour, a mixture of white and red.

Pink is used to describe politicians or individuals with mildly communist leanings.

Pink is also the stage name of Alecia Beth Moore.

Pink is the colour of love.

Pink ribbons are the international symbols for support and awareness of breast cancer. By wearing a pink ribbon the wearer expresses moral support for breast cancer.

Pink Floyd is the name of an English rock band that achieved worldwide success with their progressive and psychedelic rock music.

Pink Panther is a series of comedy films featuring the bungling French police detective Jacques Clouseau, a role played  most famously by the late Peter Sellers.

I could go on.

But what in Gods name is this that I saw at Princess Street in Mumbai?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A lesson for Kingfisher Airlines

Of course you know that Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America, among other countries have a very large Indian Diaspora. Our brethren from the Punjab form a large part of this. The Punjabis are wealthy, have deep roots to their homeland and have a huge connect to Amritsar. The Golden Temple, the Holiest of the Holy sites for a Sikh is in Amritsar.

So one Bhunpinder Kandra, clever chap, owner of Comtel Airlines, decided why not provide an air service running from Birmingham in the UK, via Vienna and then nonstop to Amritsar. The stop in Vienna was a technical stop in as much as it was required to refuel the aircraft. Excellent idea I must say. In fact, if my memory serves me right, our own Jet Airways had started an Amritsar London flight which has unfortunately stopped. Mr Kandra was onto a good thing.

Our intrepid Punjabis set about making plans to fly to Amritsar from the British heartland where they lived. For some 500 Pounds Sterling you could have the pleasure of flying to Amritsar and back. In fact the story of Amarjit Duggal, from Great Barr in Birmingham is typical. She flew from Amritsar a week after scattering her mother's ashes. So picture the scene. Lots of British Punjabis flying up and down the Birmingham Amritsar corridor. Lots waiting in Birmingham to fly out and lots in Amritsar happily vacationing, waiting to return home. Things were going swimmingly for everybody.

Last week things came to a grinding halt. The circumstances are hilarious. The consequences frightening and tragic. Here is what happened.

On the return leg, a Comtel flight landed in Vienna to refuel before flying on to Birmingham. Presumably the passengers were tired, though happy, that, in a couple of hours they would be back home. It soon transpired that there was no money to pay for the fuel. So our clever airline rounded up the passengers and told them that unless they contributed a further 20,000 Euros there was no way to get the aircraft refuelled. Some passengers opened their wallets and took out cash. Others were escorted one by one to an ATM in Vienna Airport and made to draw money. Those who refused were simply deplaned and made to fly back to Birmingham on their own steam. Brilliant idea I must say.

This of course led to the necessary outrage, apportioning of blame and all such things. Comtel Airlines is grounded. Our intrepid travellers stuck in Amritsar are on a wing and a prayer [no pun intended] to get back home. The GBP 500 gone waste. The Punjabis still in Birmingham with dud Comtel tickets have to look at other options of getting to and from Amritsar.

Closer home, Kingfisher Airlines are almost belly up. Stories abound of cancelled flights and refusal of our fuel companies to supply more fuel to Kingfisher unless they pay up unpaid dues. Jet Airways has been told to raise more money or else.............. !

In light of all these frightening developments, when flying, carry loads of cash or have absolutely bulletproof Credit/Debit cards. You never know when you will have to refuel a jet.

One thought, I hope the low cost carriers we have, Indigo, Go Air, Spice, Jetlite don’t get an idea from this and suddenly whip around and ask you to pay for fuel.

Whatever next!

Of course every word I have written is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Masala Kraft

From the time I was a child, going for dinner to the Taj Mahal hotel at Apollo Bunder [Gateway of India] was something really special. You dressed for the occasion and excitement steadily built up. After dinner, as a special treat you were allowed into Nalanda, the book shop which was open late into the night, where you were allowed to buy a book. The aura of going to the Taj for dinner has never left me. The Taj was and continues to be quite special to many.

Much has changed from the times I went there are a child. The Shamiana has been relocated and its space filled by the Starboard Bar, The Rendezvous, a French restaurant on the top floor, has now become the Souk a restaurant with Mediterranean cuisine [not the Pasta Pizza type but more Levantine]. The old Tanjore has now become Masala Kraft [their spelling]. Neither HRH the Queen nor I had been to eat at Masala Kraft. So we thought why not have a drink at the Royal Bombay Yacht Club and walk across to Masala Kraft for dinner. So we called and made a reservation for 8.45 pm. I looked at the website and found to my considerable surprise, the Taj Mumbai has the menus for all its restaurants online. The menu looked promising though not unusual nor distinctive. The dress code specified `Smart Casual’. I wondered whether I should wear a jacket without a tie as that is what smart casual is in Europe. HRH dismissed my thoughts and said, pityingly, that a simple trouser and shirt would do. “Why do you not wear a jacket when we go to the ITC?” she asked. “How is this different” she continued? As always, her logic was impeccable. I protested weakly, the Taj was special, but to no avail. Shirt and trousers it was.

The Taj website says that the Masala Kraft “started with a dream of Chef Hemant Oberoi to retrace authentic Indian cuisine. It became "Masala" a circle of restaurants where time-tested ingredients are given a new life. Gone are the masks of butter, cream, and gravy. Instead we use extra virgin oil and researched preparation techniques to retain the authentic flavors.” The Menu says “traditional masalas or spices are artfully blended with an eclectic mix of classic and unconventional ingredients, to create new renditions of authentic preparations, each unmistakably light, yet bursting with colour, aroma and flavour”. 

I say bollocks! The food was rubbish, dull in flavour, utterly boring and something that many ordinary restaurants do much better. As far as the claim of the food bursting with colour, it did not! It was the traditional brown red like all Indian food unfortunately is. You can be the judge of the colour when you have a look at the photos.

Since you have my verdict in the fourth paragraph, I will spare you the bother of reading thru this and you have the choice of getting back to work.

The restaurant has a couple of levels to make it less visually dull. The wooden pillars from the Tanjore are still there. The tables are large, quite large and reasonably placed to provide some privacy. Despite it being Friday night, 8.45 pm during Mumbai’s approaching tourist season the restaurant was only about 75% full with a vast majority being foreigners, probably hotel guests. When we left at 10.15 it was still not full. There were lots and lots of waiters, Captains, Restaurant managers, hostesses, barman and a Sommelier mincing his way thru the restaurant. All the staff operated in a rather languorous manner. The word "Susegad" comes to mind. They all needed a jolt of lightening or dare I say it, the brandishing of an AK 47 to get them to work. I could provide neither. All very friendly, or more correctly, affable, I must say but rather ineffectual.

Soon after we were seated, a bowl of very South Indian fried goodies appeared on our table with a very peculiar chutney, neither tamarind nor tomato, and not particularly good. Along with this were crudités which were wilting and dried out. Unacceptable. Then we got an Amuse Bouche - A Dahi Batata Puri which HRH pronounced as soggy. Cute touch, would get most foreigners rather tickled. 

The South Indian Fried chips 

Dahi Batata Puri
We ordered two starters. The first was outstanding, I honestly say so. This was Haleem Ke Kebab. Haleem was spread on some kind of Channa Daal Roti and grilled. Absolutely first class. Dish of the evening, unique, tasty and using the Haleem in a modern twist. The second starter was Prawn Balchau Roll. Prawn Balchau is a pickle and should therefore be oily, spicy and tangy as you need the acid to prevent spoilage. Here the Prawn Balchau was very mild, without any tang and frankly tasted like a prawn fished out from a Prawn Curry. This was wrapped in a Rice Bhakri. The dish had a fundamental problem. It was impossible to serve without disintegrating, as you can see in the photo. Silly dish. Innovation for the sake of it. They would have been better off as a Prawn Balchau served as is with a Rice Bhakri on the side. A Prawn Pickle in its true form real is quite unique without all these unnecessary gimmicks.

Haleem Ke Kebab

Prawn Balchau Roll
For our main course we ordered one of our favourite dishes – Nehari or Lamb Shanks in a red sauce/gravy that is often thickened with collagen or sometimes flour. At Masala Kraft they call it Dum Ki Nalli. At the Dum Pukht in the ITC they call it Hyderabadi Nehari and at Delhi Durbar they call it Mutton Nehari. The dish is basically the same. Lamb shanks slow cooked in a gravy which is then strained resulting the finished product being a piece of meat falling of the bone with a smooth sauce. Here at Masala Kraft it ticked all the boxes except in the flavour department. Everything was muted, very muted and they could not achieve the clarity that the gravy at ITC manages. The other dish we ordered was the old Parsi warhorse, Sali Murgi Ma Zardaloo – Chicken cooked with Apricots and topped with straw potato. Looked Ok, but once again such terribly muted flavours. My friend the Big Fromage Tax Lawyer's mother without any formal training makes a much better Sali Murgi Ma Zardaloo as do the very ordinary Ideal Corner at Gunbow Street or Britannia at Sprott Road. Dare I say it again; the Chefs needed the brandishing of an AK 47 to get them to work. As a moment of whimsy HRH ordered a Chilli Olive Naan. Very attractive looking, rather normal tasting. What more would you want from a Naan?

The Dum Ki Nalli

Dum Ki Nalli Gravy

Sali Murgi Ma Zardaloo

Chili Olive Naan 
Have you had a look at the photos? Does the food look “unmistakably light, yet bursting with colour”? Not to me it does not.

I know what you are all thinking as you read this. Stonethrower, you are a fool, what did you expect? This is all for foreigners, for tourists. You deserve what you got. I do not want to even get into a Maharashtra Navnirman Sena [MNS] type argument that the Taj should be shut down for catering to foreigners and all food should be   Batata Chi Sukhi Bhaji, Poli, Bhat, Paplet, Koshimbir ani Amti. I ask you my friends; does the ITC have a sign outside reminiscent of the British Raj saying “Foreigners and Dogs Not Allowed”? I mean come on guys get real. Is this the food we want to portray to some of the richest and most powerful who visit Mumbai? I understand that spice can be an issue but this kind of tomfoolery of Olive Oil and vibrant colour? I mean we Indian are not dropping like flies eating oil and ghee we have a billion and more souls in this country all hale and hearty. How can you be so presumptuous to suggest that Indian food is unhealthy and can be eaten only if made with olive oil? Am I stepping into MNS territory here? In my view this is a restaurant surviving on a captive audience, unmotivated staff, lazy and slothful. The lack of competition has killed them. Harsh words but in my view very true.

To have a great Indian meal, lavish, expensive, no holds barred, eat at the Peshawari, Dum Pukth or Dakshin in the ITC. Or else eat at Trishna, or, if your guests are adventurous enough Mahesh, Gajalee, Apoorva or Great Punjab. Are they not catering to tourists as well? Is their food this watered down rubbish touted with marketing verbiage of "bright vibrant colour and flavour"? Give the Taj Mahal Mumbai a miss. They have misssed the plot. 

You know something, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both ate at Bukhara - the original Peshawari. I doubt they ate at Masala Kraft.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Masala on masala

What is a masala? One answer, I repeat, one answer, could be a combination of spices, condiments and herbs that are pureed, blended or mixed together to form a basis for any preparation. So, if you were to say, mix ginger paste, garlic paste, green chilli paste and cumin powder that would be a masala. A masala could be a powder, i.e. dry or a paste formed by adding some wet or moisture containing ingredients. Why is chutney not a masala? Well, technically I guess it is, but the difference is that chutney is ready to eat unlike a masala paste which is a base for a preparation. So then what is Chicken Tikka Masala? That is an incorrect name given to dish that was created outside India.

Masalas are omnipresent in Indian food. Families have masalas that are handed down from generation to generation. The mixing of masalas, the amalgamation and morphing of recipes from family to family must have been fascinating. A young bride, fully trained by her mother carried a recipe book to her marital home. Did the book get junked and was all the training in vain? Did she start helping her new mother in law by making food the ma in laws way or did she also sneak in her favourites. Absolutely fascinating to think about those dynamics.

My great grandmother from my father’s side had a proprietary masala which she used when cooking almost anything. This magical masala made her food slightly different from the food cooked by others in the community. Her daughter i.e. my grandmother was rather different from clichéd grandmothers. She could barely make herself a cup of tea. So the daughters in law i.e. my mother and her three sisters in law were given the recipe for this masala which they use to this day.

This recipe was given to us by my mother a few years ago and it remained in the file. Every year we were given a small bottle of the masala which my mother had made. So a few days ago, we thought what is the point of all this training from Le Cordon Bleu, all the money spent if we could not even make this masala? Being mid November the weather is dry and this is the time to buy spices to make the masala. Let me tell you, it was easier said than done. First, HRH the Queen of the Kutchies pulled out the recipe and found that it made a good 6 kgs of masala. So we scaled it down to 1/6 and set about making a kilo of masala.

Now armed with the list of ingredients we went to Dr B A Road Lalbaug where there is a string of shops with Khamkar written in large letters and a prefix to Khamkar in small letters. Obviously, the Khamkars are specialists in spices and try and capitalise on the surname. The less significant name of the particular Khamkar is written in correspondingly smaller typeface. We gave our order to the salesman who took it down and passed it on to a packer. Then we had a sneezing fit. One wiseacre in the shop had emptied a gunny sack of chilly resulting in a shop full of sneezing customers. Between sneezes we paid for our spices and left.

Next stage was to toast the spices to discharge all traces of moisture. Moisture is anathema to masala. This we did by placing all the spices in trays in an oven at 75C for an hour. We were now ready to have the spices ground. This is where the fun starts.

Red spicy chili

This chili is added for colour

Some of the spices that go into the Masala

We asked all around but could find no one in Bandra West who could grind the spices. References were made to someone in Khar Danda who used to do it. But basically no one had a clue. Our friend Laju Bhatia said that his building watchman’s wife ground masala and he would get her to call. That call never materialised. Then HRH the Queen of the Kutchies called Jaffsons a spice shop off Hill Road who said he had a machine to grind but that took 30 Kgs at a time. HRH then asked at Jude Cold Store since they make and sell the East Indian Bottle Masala if she knew of a grinder. A call as made but that too reached a dead end. Looks like 1 kg was just too small a quantity. Finally, I called my aunt [one of the daughters in law] who said there was a masala maker in Bandra East who would do this. So we buzzed off to Bandra East Khernagar to Thorat. Here we hit pay dirt. For a princely sum of Rs 30/- they ground our spices.

We had a long conversation with the father son duo of Bajirao Thorat and Ajinkya Thorat on masala grinding. So here it is, all neatly dissected for you to understand.

There are two methods by which one can grind spices to make a masala one is by using a piston method, much like a mortar and pestle and the other is to use a set of grinding wheels.

The piston method was something that was done by women who turned up in your building or colony armed with a few stout lathis and a wooden bucket. The spices were put into the bucket and literally pounded to dust by these women. Entire communities used to get their yearly supply of masala made at one time. People made chilli powder, turmeric [haldi] powder, cumin [jeera] powder, coriander [dhania] powder by this method. You ensured purity of the spice and you could buy as good or as bad quality of the whole spices as you desired. Some of the older readers may recognise the photo. This is virtually nonexistent now. People today either buy packaged spices or grind small manageable quantities every so often in their Mixies at home. Why is this so? Is the increase of nuclear families and corresponding fall in joint families a reason? Is changing food habits a reason? Worth thinking about, but in another Blog.

Anyone remember this?
This piston method was used on a slightly more efficient scale by shopkeepers who installed machines that did the job. The catch here was that the machines were operated by humans who stamped on pedals that then operated the pistons. Now the entire process is automated and a motor drives the pistons.

Thorat's masala pounding machine

The other method to make spices powders is the grinding wheels. Masala grinders install Flour Mill machines and use them to grind spices. This is a much quicker method but required a much larger quantity of raw material to be cost effective.

I was told by the Thorats that the piston method resulted in a far better end product. The pistons generated no heat which the grinding wheels did and therefore the spices did not burn with the heat. Secondly, the grinding wheels always contain a residue of the previous spices ground, therefore your masala was always diluted, mixed or adulterated, albeit unwittingly. It was just the nature of the beast. The Thorats said that their main customers were still housewife’s who loved and respected their homemade masalas [Gharguti Masale to use a Marathi word] and would not dream of buying commercial premixed pre ground masala.

So it was a productive 3 day effort and the weekend was well spent. The masala is now in bottles and smelling great. Can’t wait to make some of the food that my father’s side of the family makes, like Vaalachi Usal or Ras Batate. This weekend probably.

Finished product

If anyone wants the recipe for the masala let me know. I will be happy to share it. This is the time of the year to make it.